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Md. mover shines under beam of R.I. lighthouse Shore firm proposed a creative way to transport 118-year-old landmark

August 26, 1993|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Staff Writer

But about 10 years ago, she says, residents began waking up to the sobering fact that it wouldn't be there forever. Erosion was eating at the shoreline. When it was lighted in 1875, the lighthouse stood about 300 feet from cliff's edge. By this summer it was a mere 55 feet away, dangerously close to tumbling onto the rocks from which it had diverted mariners for more than a century.

Mrs. Napier was among the handful of islanders who launched the attack to save the lighthouse. It took three acts of Congress, countless meetings, mailings, lobbying, phone calls and unabashed begging.

But finally, the Coast Guard turned over the lighthouse to the Southeast Lighthouse Foundation and, more important, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the state of Rhode Island and the local foundation came up with $2.3 million to move the lighthouse.

That victory, however, came at the expense of a crunching defeat. In 1990, the Coast Guard, to save money, turned off the great light -- a rare first-order Fresnel lens handcrafted in France -- and replaced it with an undistinguished light atop an unsightly steel tower.

"The night before they turned off the light," Mrs. Napier says, "people sat out on the hillside to watch it. My daughter climbed the old iron staircase up the tower, and she said people had placed flowers around the lens."

A creative proposal

Mr. Matyiko wanted the high-profile job of moving the lighthouse. His team included his brothers, International Chimney Corp. of Buffalo, N.Y. -- which specializes in smokestacks and recently renovated the Cape Hatteras (N.C.) Lighthouse -- and 73-year-old Peter Friesen, a consultant from Washington state. Mr. Matyiko calls him "the most respected person in the house-moving business, period."

Although they weren't the lowest bidder, he says, they were awarded the contract because they had offered the most creative proposal. Other companies wanted to remove the granite foundation, or even slice the building in half. But the house mover from Maryland insisted the lighthouse could be moved in one piece.

He was right.

After workers braced the building and secured the priceless lens, they dug around the 48-by-78-foot structure down to the basement floor. International Chimney workers cut holes for beams through the basement's thick walls with diamond-tipped drills, cables and saws.

Expert House Movers implanted 34 steel beams, ranging in length from 54 feet to 90 feet, under and around the structure and through the windows of the light tower. The four main beams underneath contained 38 hydraulic jacks spaced precisely 8 feet, 1 inch apart.

Workers dug out the basement wall and pesky boulders below the light tower. Now the structure rested on the intricate network of beams.

Then the hydraulic jacks slowly raised the building 2 feet, 8 inches. An elaborate system of tracks and rollers was installed underneath.

The move took place in three legs: 130 feet north, 130 feet east, 90 feet north. Four large hydraulic jacks bolted to the main beams pushed the building along the tracks at a snail's pace, about 5 feet at a time.

Then the jacks were reset, and they pushed five more feet. After each leg, the tracks and rollers were relaid, and the process repeated.

The relocation itself took only two weeks, but Mr. Matyiko began moving equipment onto the island by barge and ferry in May. He rented a house overlooking the water for his workers, an unglamorous six-bedroom place that, like nearly everything on the island, came with an exorbitant price tag. The rent for the summer? A cool $12,000.

"But how can you knock this ocean view?" Mr. Matyiko says as if he were a Realtor. "We've got blues breaking right out front of the house, and deer and pheasant in the back yard. It's not exactly Sharptown, is it?"

As the lighthouse inched closer and closer to its destination, an 18-inch-thick slab of concrete, Mr. Matyiko and the others grew more and more anxious to finish and get home. But there was still time for celebration, especially when the cameraman for National Geographic Explorer, filming a documentary, moved in for closeups.

The pushing stopped Monday. The lighthouse was over the slab.

First light

Jimmy Matyiko, 47, the second youngest, says saving the lighthouse prompted him to think about more than mortar and bricks.

"I keep thinking about my ancestors coming over from the Old Country," he says. "What was the first thing they probably saw from way out in the ocean? The light from a lighthouse. It probably guided their ship right toward the Statue of Liberty."

The brothers' grandparents on both sides came by boat from Hungary. Their mother and father met in this country. Their mother is still living. They salute their father, Big John the House Mover.

"Some days I really think he's up there looking out for us," Jimmy says.

Yesterday the workers shifted the lighthouse and keeper's dwelling about 2 feet so it would fit snugly onto the pad. Today they plan on lowering it, completing the move.

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